During the new movie “Man of Steel,” an early teen version of Clark Kent rides a school bus that suddenly careens off a bridge and plunges into a lake. Panicking children struggle to keep their heads above water as air pockets shrink and the bus sinks.
In that instant, the soon-to-be Superman is confronted with choosing the lesser of two evils — disobey his earthly father’s mandate to never publicly reveal Clark’s burgeoning superpowers, or watch his classmates die.
Characteristic of the selfless benevolence Superman would repeatedly demonstrate throughout “Man of Steel,” Clark lifts the school bus to safety without a second thought for the consequences that could arise from other children beholding his otherworldly strength. And for good measure, Clark even dives back into the water after saving the bus in order to rescue the redheaded classmate who frequently bullied him.
Superman receives the superstar treatment like never before in the new movie “Man of Steel." A $225 million budget enabled director Zack Snyder to infuse the movie with a seemingly endless series of bone-rattling action scenes with cutting-edge special effects. The lead role may have gone to a relative unknown in British actor Henry Cavill, but Amy Adams and Russell Crowe lead an all-star supporting cast with a combined 13 Oscar nominations to its credit.
Yet for all the money and the gilded names Hollywood can add to the Superman franchise, one constant remains unchanged since 1938, when two friends sold the first Superman manuscript to Detective Comics for $130. As the bus-saving incident illustrates, the contemporary Superman is as compelled as ever to help others in need.
Vigilante and social crusader
After growing up together in Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster co-created Superman in 1934 and sold a 13-page comic strip to Detective Comics for $130 in 1938.
When Siegel was a teenager, three thieves robbed his father at gunpoint. Siegel's father suffered a heart attack during the heist and died. It’s widely believed that that incident played an integral part in Jerry Siegel initially imagining Superman as a hardboiled crime fighter.
The original Superman “was a vigilante, going after wife-beaters and crooked politicians,” said Laura Siegel Larson, daughter of the late Jerry Siegel, in a recent interview with the British newspaper Telegraph. “It was a troubled time and people recognized the evils he fought.”
But common criminals were far from the only folks to earn the ire of Superman circa 1938. In fact, the hero frequently displayed a disdain for rich and powerful oligarchs that was so prevalent in the early comics as to suggest Superman was politically socialist.
“Over the course of his first 12 appearances, (Superman) brings down a greedy senator with ties to arms manufacturers; punishes a mine owner for forcing his men to work in dangerous conditions; exposes a disingenuous advertising executive out to fleece the public; and attacks dishonest stockbrokers in the oil industry,” University of Oregon professor Ben Saunders detailed in his book “Do the Gods Wear Capes?” “ ‘Justice,’ for Siegel and Shuster’s original Superman, is less a matter of individual rights than a matter of the distribution of wealth.”
Both Siegel and Shuster were Jewish. In that light, University of Northern Iowa professor Harry Brod believes Superman’s core values grow out of Jewish culture.
“I think Superman siding with the underdog and oppressed is (from) traditional Jewish values,” Brod said. “There are all sorts of reasons for that — there’s a history of anti-Semitism; there’s the messianic call for justice, which is deeply embedded in Judaism; and the imperative to be engaged in the stream of history and help history move forward in a more progressive way.”
In his book “Superman is Jewish?” Brod argued that it made sense for two Jewish men to be the ones to create a superhero as futuristic as Superman.
“For Jews the Messiah has not yet come, so the better time is in the future,” he said. “I don’t want to oversimplify this, but on the whole Jews don’t gravitate toward the Christian fantasy tradition of another place like Middle Earth or Narnia. Jews tend to gravitate more toward a future time or place.”
Along those lines, NPR contributor and author Glen Weldon explained why a very futuristic nickname belonged to early Superman.
“He was called the ‘Man of Tomorrow’ long before he was called the ‘Man of Steel,’” Weldon said. “He represents the future. He represents how we can be if we are better to each other, if we look out for one another, and we are self sacrificing.”
A common thread of virtue
DC Comics essentially fired Siegel and Shuster in 1948, only a decade after they created Superman.
“By the 1950s, Superman’s ideological leanings were entirely in step with those of the political establishment (and) the transformation from the political fringe to the mainstream could be taken as complete,” Saunders wrote.
After the political imprint of Superman’s creators had evaporated, the underlying politics of the Superman franchise began evolving in order to mirror the contemporary culture. And by constantly changing in that way, Superman became like a prism that could continue projecting the same message despite changes to its surroundings.
“Superman was an aggressive socialist-anarchist in the 1930s, a staunch opponent of Nazism in the '40s, an Eisenhower Republican in the 1950s and an increasingly fantastical figure, removed from the concerns of this earth, in the 1960s,” Saunders told the Deseret News. “But to each generation, he represented some ideal notion of decency, and the most distinctive things about him — his origin, his costume, his dual identity, his relationship with Lois — remained essentially the same.
“Superman has thus managed to seem to represent an unchanging notion of virtue precisely by changing. It's a pretty neat trick. It means that he's really a much more protean character than most people realize, because he projects a kind of consistency that is belied by his larger history.”
“Superman is a mirror to our culture — a very flattering one,” Weldon said. “He is our best self.”
Indeed, in his new book “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” Weldon carefully traced the hero’s existence and cultural influence across 75 years. And although a lot has changed, Weldon discovered that some of Superman’s most foundational attributes remain just as they were in 1938.
“At first glance his motivation is a really simple one,” Weldon said. “It’s a classic hero’s motivation: (A) Superman puts the needs of others over those of himself, and (B) he never gives up. And that is the (common) line that goes through 75 years of his character; that is the thing that we really respond to.”